On September 1, several local newspapers reported on a story about a Black baby doll found hanging from a noose in the Rim of the World Unified School District’s Transportation Office. The reports reignited claims of racism at the school district and raised passions at its September 7 workshop meeting.
The original incident, previously reported in The Voice/Black Voice News, occurred at the end of Rim of the World Unified School District’s (ROWUSD) 2016-17 school year, when an elementary school student allegedly dangled a Black baby doll by a noose outside the window of the school bus as it went along its route to Valley of Enchantment Elementary School.
A school bus driver discovered the student’s actions, confiscated the Black baby doll and noose and took it to the school district’s transportation office. It is what happened next that turmoil among employees in an emotionally divisive issue.
The Sun newspaper article, dated September 1, alleged the names of school district employees responsible for hanging the Black baby doll in the transportation office, and how it remained on display for several weeks. In the article, ROWUSD employees Sandi Renfro and brothers Harry and Shane McLelland alleged ROWUSD’s newly promoted Supervisor of Transportation, Jennifer Kawell, allowed retired bus driver, Susie Elliott, to hang the mock-lynched Black baby doll in the transportation office where it remained despite repeated objections.
ROWUSD, located in the San Bernardino Mountains, has a student population of 1,922— 1,115 Caucasian (58 percent), 14 African- American (.007 percent), 674 Hispanic or Latino (35 percent), 10 Asian (.005 percent), 6 American Indian or Alaska Native (.003 percent), 6 Filipino (.003 percent), and 5 Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (.002 percent).
At ROWUSD’s workshop meeting on September 7, it’s all-White Board of Trustees sat before an audience of mostly White people, a few African Americans and a few Hispanic or Latino, all concerned over what a mock-lynched Black baby doll symbolized and what it foretold for the district; two speakers attended to provide opposing views of the incident.
“I am the parent that found the Black baby doll hanging by its neck in Jennifer Kawell's office,” ROWUSD Employee Jennyfer Thompson revealed, recalling, “I am the one that was told by a lady from the Administration Office “not to worry, because the doll is not always hanging there.”
“I am the one that got a phone call from Mrs. Kawell saying ‘I know it looked bad, but it's not what you think it is,’” Thompson continued, decrying those who say the article “severely distorted what occurred” or called it “Fake News,” a slap “in the face for people that took a stand and did the right thing.”
“Susie Elliot committed an inexcusable act by hanging the Black baby doll up by its neck,” Thompson accused. “Jennifer Kawell committed several inexcusable acts by, first off, being in charge of that office and allowing it, second, laughing about it, and third, denying several requests for it to be taken down.”
“You called it an ‘unfortunate incident’ when in all reality this is a bunch of serious, maybe even criminal acts committed by your employees,” Thompson objected. “This has not just tainted my view of mountain living, it has also given me anxiety each and every single day that I have to send my bi-racial children off to attend school in this district!”
“What actually is fake news, is that appropriate actions have been taken,” Thompson complained. “If appropriate actions would have been taken I wouldn't be standing here right now” and Kawell and Elliot would no longer work for the district. “And for neither the new superintendent nor any of the board members to step in is simply disgusting and sends a pretty strong, disturbing message.” Thompson concluded, “’A fish rots from the head down’ is an old German saying that perfectly describes this district.”
Kawell sent an African-American representative, Celeste Bryant, to read her statement before the board and audience. “I am the Transportation Department Supervisor within the ROWUSD,” Bryant read. “On September 1, 2017, a misleading article was published in the San Bernardino Sun newspaper regarding an incident that had taken place in May 2017 within our District Transportation Department.
“A toy doll with Black arms and strategically tangled and knotted around the neck area of the toy was confiscated from a child by one of our newly hired drivers. The driver discovered an elementary school student dangling the toy out of the moving school bus.”
The statement continued, “The toy was confiscated and delivered to the current director of transportation at that time. I had only been under the supervisor role for less than 30 days and was under the direction of the director of transportation,” with the transportation office having no “specific work area designated for specific people” and “frequented and used by transportation employees.”
“I was not aware of the doll’s presence or location in the dispatch office until May 25, 2017, when I was approached by one of our secretaries in a nearby office,” Kawell’s statement read. “Immediately, once informed of the doll, I entered the dispatch office and removed the toy doll…contacted the assistant superintendent [and] followed his direction.”
Kawell claimed district officials thoroughly investigated the incident and disciplined involved employees, while two of the employees accusing her in the Sun article were motivated to remove her from her new position after applying and not being chosen for the promotion themselves.
“Racism, intolerance, and racially insensitive behavior has not and will not be tolerated by myself or any employees under my supervision nor in my personal life,” Kawell voiced, objecting to the inclusion of her personal and family’s information in the Sun article, which “now led to my family being personally attacked, stalked and harassed.”
Dr. Ana Wilson, a tutor at Charles Hoffman Elementary School, addressed the audience. “I look like you up here, I’m white as many of you in here, I’m educated, I’m middle class. But you see, I’m not like you, I’m a Jew,” she revealed, placing a yellow Star of David on her blouse. “This is Jude, Jude means Jew in German. Like the majority of the Jews now alive, I have family members who died in the concentration camps.”
“My only grandson is bi-racial, his mother is African-American, his father is white; when you look at him you see a young Black man,” Wilson continued, opining that people judge him “on the color of his skin.”
“Two of my granddaughters are bi-racial, their mother is Cuban, their father is white,” Wilson said, “You judge them because they are Latina and many assume now that they are undocumented despite being born in the U.S.”
“Lastly, I’m not like you, I’m married to my wife, we now have the same legal basis as those of you in heterosexual marriage,” Wilson said, “You now don’t view me the same as you did when I stepped to the podium but I am the same, your view changed based on this information.”
“I read this because we are dealing with racism, with cultures of sexism, xenophobia, homophobia and we need to confront this,” Wilson voiced. “We need to join together as Americans and denounce all who preach of hate instead of love, acceptance and understanding that should define our 21st Century.”
Superintendent Michelle Murphy, hired on July 1, addressed the audience, “Let me be very clear about something: images or behavior that communicate racism or intolerance will not be tolerated in this district, even if these actions are taken through ignorance or insensitivity, they simply are not allowed.”
“With that being said there are a few important points I would like to emphasize about this issue tonight,” Murphy continued. “Since the conclusion of this investigation there are employees that are no longer employed by this district that were involved in the investigation. The entire department has received sensitivity training since the incident took place and this type of training is going to be continued and ongoing. We are confident in our process and what we have done.
“The focus at ROWUSD will continue to be one that is focused on students, their achievement, their education, and their ability to make a positive influence in contributions to our community and to our world,” Murphy concluded thanking those who spoke.
ROWUSD President Cindy Gardner characterized the “incident of the last school year” as an “insensitive lapse of judgment” while also a reminder for people to be more sensitive, examine how they view others and “have that conversation.”
Gardner recalled a time in her life when she was considered a minority while attending junior high in Chula Vista and experienced what it was like to “be on the receiving end of what others go through daily.”
Gardner concluded the district wants every student to feel safe and secure to create “success for every single student, no matter what their color, their sexual preference, their religious base and foundation, we are inclusive.”
The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has acknowledged an ongoing investigation into threatening phone calls and emails received by the district and its employees without viewing the incident itself as a hate crime, because no one was specifically targeted, and due to lack of intent.
Photos by Gail Fry